After Nearly Three Decades in Office, the Queens DA Dies

Queens’ longtime district attorney died late last week, ahead of an expected retirement scheduled to start next month.

Judge Richard Brown, 86, died Friday evening. He had been planning since March to retire effective June 1, citing his concerns over declining health. He had been contending with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system.

An appellate judge for 18 years, Brown had been the borough’s top prosecutor since being appointed to the position by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1991. A Democrat, Brown would win his first election to the post later that year, winning six reelection bids every four years afterward. The longest-serving D.A. Queens has ever had, Brown announced on January 9 he would not seek out an eighth term. Brown’s chief assistant, John Ryan, will serve as Queens’ interim district attorney until municipal elections for a permanent replacement are held this fall.

Brown was born in Brooklyn in 1932, moving to Queens at the age of five. He earned his bachelor’s degree upstate at Hobart College in 1953, graduating from the New York University School of Law in 1956. He was admitted to the state bar later that year, working in practice and in a number of state legislative capacities before becoming a judge in 1973. Brown was appointed an acting justice to New York’s Supreme Court in 1976, elected to serve as a justice to Queens County the following year. After briefly leaving to serve as Gov. Hugh Carey’s legal counsel, Brown was a justice in the appellate division until his appointment to district attorney of Queens.

Brown’s lengthy tenure at his Kew Gardens office spanned great transformations in New York’s criminal landscape. The year before his appointment, in 1990 New York City recorded its highest-ever number of murders, at 2,245. While Queens contributed just a small component of that total—308 murders—the early 1990s was a high point for the borough across the board in terms of crime, from rape and robbery to property damage and vehicular theft.

Queens’ crime rate today is just a fraction of what it had been in those days—a seventh of the murders, a sixth of the robberies, a thirtieth of the stolen vehicles—and while it would not be accurate to ascribe the overall fall in crime over the past three decades solely to activities of the district attorney’s office, under Brown it adapted to the tough-on-crime policies that city offices and the New York Police Department undertook in response. As times and conditions changed, the office also experimented with various alternatives to traditional prosecuting.

When announcing his plan not to run for re-election in January, Brown looked back on his career. He focused most on the specialized courts and alternative sentencing programs his office had pioneered over the years, around 30 in all. Two in particular were given special attention: Queens Court Academy, a diversion program for youthful offenders operated with the Department of Education; and the Queens Treatment Intervention Program for drug users.

“Whatever success I have attained over the years is due in large measure to the fact that from the very beginning I have surrounded myself with the most talented, capable, and dedicated professionals imaginable—men and women of exceptional ability and commitment. Because of them, our office is among the best prosecutors’ offices in the state—indeed, the best in the country.”

While Brown’s office has been well-regarded in many quarters for its efficiency and inventiveness, it has not been without its critics. One is a coalition of community groups, Queens for DA Accountability, which was formed earlier this year ahead of the expected race to replace him. Characterizing the Queens’ D.A. as part of a “by-gone tough-on-crime era” that had contributed to high incarceration rates and the inequitable targeting of vulnerable communities, the group is pushing for more progressive reforms to the borough’s criminal justice system. These include eliminating cash bail, de-prioritizing prosecution for a range of low-level crimes, and seeking to cut incarceration by half. It sees the election as an opportunity for an important component of the criminal justice system to take a dramatic new course.

Seven candidates have announced they will be participating in the Democratic primary June 25, gunning for Brown’s office in November. Among them are current Queens Borough President Melinda Katz; public defender Tiffany Cabán; Rory Lancman, member of the City Council since 2013 and former state assemblyman; Gregory Lasak, 11th District justice from 2004 to 2018; Maspeth lawyer Betty Lugo; former Queens prosecutor Mina Malik; and former Brooklyn assistant district attorney, Jose Nieves.

A number of candidates have tacked leftward in the run-up to next month’s primary, with many of the planks in their platforms often overlapping. Cabán is running to lower overall incarceration, tighten oversight over law enforcement, and advocate for reforming court-imposed fees and civil asset forfeiture. Lancman has proposed offering more warrant-clearing opportunities and tackling wage theft, while Malik wants to establish a permanent conviction review unit similar to that used in Brooklyn, and expand what materials get disclosed to the public during police misconduct cases.

Among the candidates in the running, Lugo has taken a more centrist position, telling the Queens Chronicle in March she would consider running as a Republican if she fails to win the Democratic primary. So far only one candidate has announced his run on the race’s GOP ticket, Jamaica attorney Daniel Kogan. As is, Kogan will face whomever wins next month’s primary in November’s municipal election.

As will happen in political campaigns, reform promises can turn to shots at the sitting administration. Brown’s interim replacement, Ryan, issued a statement to the Queens Daily Eagle on April 10 defending his boss’ record.

“To hear some of the candidates running for Queens District Attorney, you would have to be forgiven for thinking that the Queens D.A.’s Office was stuck in the 1970s, with no programs for defendants, no treatment programs, no alternative sentencing options and no specialized courts,” he said. “After stating which crimes they won’t prosecute and which defendants they won’t jail, the candidates clamor for alternatives to incarceration, as if none exist in Queens. They are either terribly misinformed, or deliberately misrepresenting the facts.”

Brown’s funeral service was scheduled for late Tuesday morning, at his home neighborhood of Forest Hills. He is survived by wife Rhoda, three children and two grandchildren. As a sign of respect, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all flags to be lowered to half-staff on Sunday. Katz also shared words of reflection on the D.A.’s behalf on the borough president’s website:

“The Borough of Queens mourns the loss of a lifelong public servant. We reflect on and honor Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown’s extraordinary devotion and distinguished service to the people of Queens. I will forever and fondly remember his kindness to me and to my entire family throughout the years. Our sincerest thoughts and prayers are with Judge Brown’s family – especially Rhoda, their three children and two grandchildren – during this difficult time.”

Most of the candidates took time on May 4 to express condolences to Brown’s family and sum up their thoughts on the man’s tenure as district attorney.

“Judge Brown had a long and distinguished career in service to the people of Queens County,” reflected Lasak, who before becoming a judge had worked as Brown’s homicide bureau chief. “He was innovative in his approach to justice and keeping us safe and for that we should all be eternally grateful. He really loved being the district attorney and he was a truly dedicated public servant. Personally, I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunities he gave me and the faith he had in me to serve alongside him.”

Other candidates, former colleagues and courtroom contemporaries of Brown, relayed their condolences on Twitter: